by Martha Rosenberg
The screaming woman is right out of Friday the 13th Part 2 or Halloween. Face contorted, mouth in an impossible S shape, she looks like she's being murdered--or doing the murdering.
Other photos show her clenching her teeth, pulling her hair and screeching into the telephone. Is it an ad for the remake of Psycho that everyone's been waiting for?
No, it's an ad to sell the latest disease big pharma hopes will move its drugs: bipolar disorder.
And as everyone who remembers HRT marketing knows, the quickest way to sell a drug is showing out of control women.
"Are there periods of time when you have racing thoughts? Fly off the handle at little things? Spend out of control?" ask the magazine ads. "Need less sleep? Feel irritable? You may need treatment for bipolar disorder."
Of course you may also have had too much coffee or a bad day at the office. But mental illness makes a lot more money. Especially if you decide to take AstraZeneca's Seroquel.
Created in 1988 by tweaking an existing antipsychotic compound enough to merit a patent, 1
Seroquel (quetiapine fumarate) had the three things big pharma loves most in a drug: a short time from R&D to sales, a daily ad infinitum dosage and a high price. ($11.82 a day or $4,300 a year) 2
It was approved in 1997 for schizophrenia. At first it was a block buster, accounting for one dollar in nine of AstraZeneca revenue.3
But then in 2005, that cheeky New England Journal of Medicine found Seroquel and other atypical antipsychotics except one had no advantage over the older antipsychotics like Haldol and Thorazine. (Except of course price.) 4
Including the putative reduction in rigidity and tremors that was their selling point. 2
The finding, part of a six-year National Institutes of Health comparative drug study, provided "a comprehensive set of data that were obtained independently of the pharmaceutical industry," commented principal investigator Jeffrey Lieberman, adding insult to injury. 4
Around the same time the just as cheeky British Medical Journal 5 announced that Seroquel and a similar atypical antipsychotic were ineffective in reducing agitation among Alzheimer's patients who constitute 29 percent of Seroquel sales.
In fact, Seroquel was found to actually make cognitive functioning worse in the elderly patients with dementia studied. Then there was the police blotter. Violent assault reports increasingly mentioned Seroquel---one in Yonkers, NY began, "The city jail guard who shot his wife before killing himself had just begun taking a powerful antipsychotic drug that listed 'suicide attempt' among its possible side effects"6--and law suits began piling up. Three hundred and eighty according to USA Today. 7
One young Seroquel patient told the Chicago Sun-Times, "It would take me anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half to get out of bed each morning. I couldn't think, I couldn't see, and I couldn't be me," and that the license of the physician who prescribed her Seroquel was revoked. 8
And there was bad financial news too.
AstraZeneca's new blood thinner and diabetes drug were both stalled due to safety concerns and Teva Pharmaceuticals, a generic drug maker, challenged Seroquel's patent to the FDA. 2
So AstraZeneca did what drug companies that put marketing before medicine always do: came up with a new use for Seroquel (bipolar disorder) 2 and new formulation (sustained release) 9 and yelled breakthrough. Now all it has to do is convince millions of healthy women and men they should take a major tranquilizer, an antipsychotic for schizophrenia, because they had a bad day. That's before it gets to the kids.
Maybe the screaming woman in the ad has just seen the AstraZeneca marketing plan.
1 News Journal (Wilmington, DE) October 24, 2004 "It's a long, bumpy road for finding a new drug"
2 News Journal (Wilmington, DE) April 23, 2006 "Seroquel big, and could get bigger - AstraZeneca shrugs off patent challenges, seeks new markets"
3 News Journal (Wilmington, DE) Oct 24 2006
4 Deseret News (Salt Lake City, UT) October 3, 2005 "Older medication as good as new ones, study finds" from Wall Street Journal
5 News Journal (Wilmington, DE) February 19, 2005 "AstraZeneca disputes new study on drug"
6 Journal News (Yonkers, NY) May 2, 2006 "Jail guard started antipsychotic 4 days before shootings"
7 USA Today August 23, 2006 "Lawsuits Plague Industry; Drug makers faced the most product liabilitylawsuits last year of any industry"
8 Chicago Sun-Times January 15, 2006 "The Downside of Happy Pills"
9 Health & Medicine Week - Aug. 14, 2006